the observatory

News Director Quits Over Hospital Deal

WEAU-TV in Wisconsin’s arrangement called unethical
January 25, 2008

A week and a half ago, Glen Mabie resigned as news director for WEAU-TV in Eau Claire, Wisconsin after one year on the job. Mabie’s resignation was an act of protest against the station’s plan to form an exclusive coverage deal with a local hospital, which he says would have compromised the station’s independence and integrity. In the wake of his resignation, and complaints from the news staff, the station has since abandoned the plan. Though it appears WEAU-TV did not stand to gain financially from the arrangement, such ethically shaky arrangements are so common among local TV news operations that we referred to them as an “epidemic” last March.

Curtis Brainard: Tell me about the terms of this deal with Sacred Heart Hospital.

Glen Mabie: As I understood it and as I was originally told, Sacred Heart had approached the station with an initiative to make western Wisconsin healthy. Their proposal to our general manager was to provide the news department with a list of stories, and the news department would then pick which story to do and twice a week one of our reporters would have to go and do one of these stories and talk to personnel at Sacred Heart Hospital. And we were told that we could not talk to personnel from Luther Hospital, which is a second hospital in the Eau Claire area.

CB: Did the station solicit your opinion about this as news director, or merely try to foist it upon you?

GM: I was brought into the general manager’s office and told, “This is what we’re doing.” At that time I expressed concern that the exclusivity agreement was certainly going to be a red flag, but I was told that this was something that we were going to do.

CB: Why did you oppose the deal, and were you aware at the time that similar deals are a fairly widespread problem?

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GM: I know that there are similar deals around the country. My opposition to it was based mostly on the fact that this was dictating content in our news product, and I just simply didn’t think that was right.

CB: Was there any room for argument? Were you able to push back at all?

GM: It kind of played itself out slowly at first. Then it was mentioned in a staff meeting and some of the staff expressed the same concerns that I had, perhaps a little more vociferously than I did. You know, part of my job as a news director was to be the good soldier. So it was a balancing act between trying to adhere to what the upper management wanted and trying to fight it.

CB: What was the management’s reaction to the staff’s concerns?

GM: The reaction was that this was still probably going to happen. In early January, about a week or so after a meeting between some staff members and the general manager, I was told that, “We’re going to go ahead and do this. It’s very close to being a done deal.” And I was told, “You have to get the staff on board with this.” I thought about it long and hard for about two days and I decided that I could not, with a clear conscience, walk into that newsroom on Monday, sit the staff down and say, “We’re doing this, and it’s a good thing.” So I decided that I would go out on my terms, and I offered my letter of resignation.

CB: The local newspaper supported your decision to resign. Did you get much support from colleagues and other journalists as this was playing out and then subsequent to your resignation?

GM: Oh, yes. Before the decision was made, there were a number of people in the newsroom that certainly didn’t want to see this happen. And they’re the real heroes in this, because they really stood up against this and caused enough of a ruckus about it that the proposal was ended. As far as since it’s happened, it’s unbelievable the amount of support I’ve received from people around the country. I’ve heard from people from as far away as California and Florida saying, “Thank you for standing up.” I have to admit, I didn’t think an issue like this in little ol’ Eau Claire, Wisconsin, would end up being as big a deal within the industry as it seems to have become.

CB: What’s next for you?

GM: I have no idea what’s next. This is what I’ve done for twenty-five years. It’s really all I’ve ever done, and I do like it. I think some of the passion was disappearing simply because of the constant fights and battles like this. But just being away from it for a week and half now, I realize that, yeah, it’s still something I would like to do. I don’t know in what form. My family doesn’t necessarily want to move again. I’ve been at seven different stations over the past quarter-century, a couple of them twice. We don’t want to have to move our kids again; they’ve paid their penance. My two oldest are on their third school district right now. And we like where we live. Now, media jobs are few and far between up here, so options are certainly limited. So whether or not I get back into a newsroom, I don’t know.

CB: Any lessons for other journalists?

GM: I guess the one thing that I learned through all of this is that there still is that bastion of journalistic integrity. Especially with the staff at the station – they were so tremendous in standing up to this, and so strong-willed in their belief that they needed to do what was right and that the station needed to maintain its journalistic integrity. And that was from a young staff. And just the support I’ve gotten from people over the past couple of weeks-it’s very humbling.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.